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The “cool” guy despising group tours seems to have jinxed us. At first everything went very normal: the bus punctually picked us up at 5.15am, while it was still dark, collected other participants of the Amalfi Coast tour from their hotels and delivered all of us to Ischia Porto, where we boarded a ferry. In Naples we were met by a tour guide with a Baltic accent, and got on another bus.
I must say that Naples hadn’t made much of an impression when we arrived from Rome, but, as we drove through it, Lena the tour guide spoke of it with great passion. She was telling us about its status of the capital of the kingdom, its magnificent palaces neighbouring with sunless narrow streets with colourful linens hanging on the balconies, just like in the movie La Ciociara.
We drove out of Naples, past Pompeii and Herculaneum. Here we were told that everything around was pretty much sitting on a powder keg – there are lots of extinct and dormant volcanoes, and also the active Vesuvius. It erupts every 60-70 years, and the last time was just 69 years ago. Thus, on the one hand, the next eruption is anticipated with fear, but on the other, it is awaited, because the longer the interval between two eruptions, the more destructive disaster it turns into – for example, the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD occurred after 300 years of inactivity. However, people continue to settle right at the foot of the volcano with careless perseverance: the climate is too favourable and the soil too fertile for these places to be left. Officially construction within a radius of a few kilometers from Mount Vesuvius is prohibited. But people here seem to live with the if-you-mustn’t-but-want-to-do-it-then-you-can-do-it principle – especially that the law does not permit to destroy the buildings, even at the stage of one wall built only, and only makes the owners pay a fine of 20-30k euros.
At this point already we noticed that the traffic was very slow on our side of the road, we were basically in a traffic jam. But Lena suggested that this was due to tomorrow’s holiday of Ferragosto and had to do with everyone flocking to the resort coast. The reality was much worse: and we had the chance to fully appreciate it, as well as the “evil eye” of the New Russian, when we entered a two-kilometre tunnel. Here the column of vehicles literally froze, although the opposite lane was absolutely empty. We spent exactly an hour and a half in this tunnel, and the whole way from Naples to Sorrento took us a good four hours, while it barely should have taken 90 minutes. The people in the bus got extremely frustrated, the most radical ones were demanding to turn around, get on the opposite lane, return to Naples and get the money back, but this was absolutely impossible, because there was no opportunity to turn around, and besides large buses are allowed to move in only one direction along this coast. The most impatient ones left the bus at the exit of the tunnel, as the situation outside was no better, and walked around to stretch their legs.
Our tour guide talked to the Carabinieri driving past us, and found out that a terrible fatal accident had happened somewhere ahead and a funeral car was already heading there. Why it took almost two hours for the Carabinieri to get close to the scene remained a big question to us. And anyway, even to us (not quite knowing the intricacies of the case, of course) it seemed pretty logical that the traffic in the tunnel should have somehow been regulated in order to avoid such a disheartening and unsafe congestion in it.
It seemed that the whole tour went awry. However, the situation was saved: Lena promptly got in touch with their “headquarters ” and agreed that we would be allowed to board a different ferry at a different, nearer port an hour later than initially planned, which therefore allowed us to save an hour, and then one more – by cancelling the set lunch planned originally and giving the tourists an opportunity to eat on the go during town walks. And finally, exhausted, but happy, we
returned arrived in Sorrento. What can I say, it is indeed a very beautiful town. We were told that it had been visited by Gorky (again!), Feodor Chaliapin, Sylvester Shchedrin. Everything here is all about lemons and olives – lemons reach monstrous proportions (up to two kilograms) and have a distinctive flavour, the whole town smells of them! The mountains slopes are covered with olive trees, with rows stretched underneath them. We were told that the olives for the best first press oil must be collected directly from the tree and not from the ground, which is virtually impossible to do manually on steep slopes – and that’s where those nets come in handy!
Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are considered traditional wedding places for couples from all over the world. We saw an English wedding, with guests walking on the streets and taking photos.
The views here are just so breathtakingly beautiful, in the truest sense of the word! In general, a drive on the mountain serpentine feels, to put it mildly, quite exciting. The bus is driving on a narrow ledge along the cliff, at a height of up to 300 metres above sea level. The road, however, had not always been there – it was constructed by Mussolini. Prior to that, people used to walk on foot or ride donkeys on the mountain paths.
Despite the fact that these places are declared heaven on earth (it’s even said that righteous Amalfians will return home after death), life is not that comfortable there. Of course, it probably is for Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, who own luxury villas along the coast, as we were shown, with helipads and elevators that can take them right down to the beach. For ordinary mortals, though, every simple thing turns into a difficult issue – they have to walk a hell lot of steps (and I mean that – really a lot!) every time they want to go to the beach or to work. If you ask someone where they live, they will tell you the number of the step rather than the street name! And imagine them having to do something more serious, such as painting the house! That’s what they do in this case: a van brings a couple of donkeys to the closest possible place, where the specially trained animals get loaded with buckets of paint and rush up the stairs.
We didn’t get to visit the very beautiful town of Positano, although we did fully appreciate the view over it from the observation deck: pink, white and yellow houses, literally built into the rocks. Very picturesque, but it looked even more inaccessible and impractical.
Another town where we didn’t stop either – Praiano – is less well known than Positano. It is interesting that the traditional Christmas nativity scene includes the model of the town itself. This is the ending point of the Christmas procession on December 25, carrying a miniature figuring of Christ the child. We drove past this model and had the chance to take a look.
Amalfi, despite being so celebrated, looked to us like one more replica of the previously seen towns. It is famous for the majestic Cathedral of St. Andrew, where the relics of the aforementioned saint lie. Lena was persistently urging us to see them but honestly we weren’t too enthusiastic about this idea, even though the cathedral was really very beautiful from the outside.
Speaking of holy relics: it appears that in the Middle Ages they were extremely fashionable and prestigious to have in any city, so they were then subject to barter in the best case and theft in the worst. The relics of St. Andrew appeared in Amalfi as a result of the latter actually. Sometimes they would steal not only whole relics, but also parts of them. Robbed monks were ashamed to admit being so careless, therefore, they would replace the missing parts with fake ones (surprisingly, these fake relics still went on working wonders!), and as a result, a saint could end up having three or four arms or legs.
Thus, the walking tour around Amalfi did not satisfy us, but the boat trip along its coast was very pleasant, allowing us to see all these magnificent mountains, bays, hotels and villas from the sea. We sailed in the direction of Maiori, Minori and Ravello, where our bus arrived to pick us up. By the way, on top of all the transportation troubles we had had, the bus somehow managed to hit a parked car when manoeuvring to enter yet another busy tunnel, so while we were happily enjoying our sea trip, the driver had to deal with the frustrated owner of that car.
Ravello is a small town located even higher up the cliff. We didn’t go up there, and only saw it from aside, while listening to our guide’s comments about Wagner festivals that are held there and are so popular that tickets must be booked almost a year in advance.
The town of Ravello is also a proud owner of relics – this time those of Saint Panteleimont, and every year on the day of his execution the Saint, as if to demonstrate his full consent to be in this place, arranges a miracle – liquefaction of his blood. A similar miracle, but with even more rapid boiling of the blood, is arranged by Saint Januarius, the patron of Naples. It is very important for Neapolitans, as a pattern has been traced: if the blood liquefies duly, the Vesuvius does not erupt during this year and any other ills also bypass Naples. Therefore, on this day – namely September 19 – all Neapolitans are very nervous and can’t wait for the coveted event. To guarantee it happening for sure, the oldest old ladies are sat in the first row in the cathedral (who are jokingly referred to as the “relatives of Saint Januarius” for their age), and start praying to the saint. Then, if the miracle is delayed, they switch to exhortations – gently at first, then more and more angrily until they literally end up swearing. Instead of taking offense, the Saint, either stimulated by, or scared of such attitude finally performs the long-awaited miracle!
The last town of the Amalfi coast was Vetri Sul Mare, and rounding the hill, we saw the city of Salerno in the distance and hurried back to Naples, to get to the port. On the way back, Lena told us that the Neapolitans were very superstitious , believed in destiny and tried to find signs in any event for the game of bingo . In every house there is a booklet that translates any unusual event into the language of numbers. Lena said half-jokingly, half-seriously, that upon returning home she would check that little book and find out which numbers corresponded to a traffic congestion, a corpse on the road and other events that happened to us today, and then place bets on these numbers.